NYFF Film Review: ‘Wonder Wheel’ Harnesses Kate Winslet’s Glory But Defaults on Narrative Currency


2017 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: When Woody Allen is on, he’s on.  He can be the most engaging, inventive crafter of words in the game.  In his newest film “Wonder Wheel,” likely his most artful looking picture to date, he seems to misfire on its storytelling structure but is held together by the bombastic and rapturous performance Kate Winslet.  Seemingly determined to emulate another “Blue Jasmine,” Allen seems locked in the scenery, rather than its narrative.

“Wonder Wheel,” tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator Humpty (played by Jim Belushi) and his beleaguered wife Ginny (played by Winslet) as its narrated by a lifeguard Mickey (played by Justin Timberlake) in the backdrop of Coney Island in the 1950s.  Things get interesting when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (played by Juno Temple) returns after leaving her mafia husband.

Woody Allen has seemed to have fallen for the manic, crazed woman, and while that has seemed to work for the most part in “Blue Jasmine” and “Cafe Society,” it’s beginning to sour as “Wonder Wheel’s” behaviors are a bit too conflicting.

Allen orchestrates his film like a play as if he was determined to bring this to Broadway.  Even the opening scenes feel weirdly theatrical but unsure if that’s the shortcomings of its direction or its actors.  Allen grasps and clinches to the lens of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, as he utilizes light and color to express mood and feeling.  If the backdrop of its story matched the brilliance of the craft, this could have been something truly special.  Unfortunately, you can only change the bulbs and hues so much before it becomes stagnant.

If there’s a thread that keeps this cloth together it’s Kate Winslet’s scintillating and lucent performance.  Possible to be among the top-tier turns of her already lustrous career, Winslet acquires a prideful and cantankerous person and presents her to the world.  Irredeemable and eristic, Ginny feels to the be the distant cousin of Allen’s most famous modern day characters.  Winslet embraces her bitter and loathsome elements, furnishing her with vile decisions and detestable consequences.

Justin Timberlake seems to fit within the world that’s created, looking to assert himself as a serious, charismatic actor.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to top his already well-regarded work in 2010’s “The Social Network,” and is still searching for the role that cements him in the Hollywood industry.

Jim Belushi, who obviously was attempting to take a play out of the Andrew Dice Clay playbook, weasels into a role, for the most part, gets its moments.  He shows Humpty’s inner turmoil about the life he created and his desperation to correct something from the past.

Juno Temple’s evolution into a thrilling and notable actress is nearly complete.  While she lacks the heft due to the script’s shortcomings, she eloquently penetrates the material, finding something that may not have been there otherwise.

What’s most surprising is how Suzy Benzinger‘s costumes, which under normal circumstances would be a standout, seem fatigued and disinterested to the plot.  Santo Loqasto‘s production work is skillfully pleasing but more in the off-Broadway sense like a recreation of a Tennessee Williams play.

Allen would be remiss if he didn’t look inward to the film’s ultimate shortcomings.  While he can get the very best out of an actor, as demonstrated by Winslet’s bravura work, he doesn’t seem to be reading between the lines anymore, rather than recycling and salvaging any last bit of his former genius.  With a bit of self-reflection, he can convert his deficiencies into newfound endowments.

Wonder Wheel” has redeemable qualities.  There’s something robust about the story that Allen is trying to tell despite the punchy way in which he chooses to tell it.  If anything, the dominant and dynamic work of Winslet will be well worth the price of admission.

“Wonder Wheel” is closing the New York Film Festival, is distributed by Amazon Studios, and opens in limited release on Dec. 1.

GRADE: (★½)

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